Married but living apart? Canadian experts weigh in on Japan’s separation marriage trend

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At a time when divorce and separation is increasingly on the rise among some groups in Canada, unique concepts like “separation marriage” and “weekend marriage” are taking over in one part of the world.

In Japan, many are opting to live separately despite being legally married in order to have a better lifestyle. Some are even forming a weekend arrangement where they only couple up during the weekends and go on to live separate lives in separate residences during the week in an effort to have “easier” and more flexible relationships.

According to Statistics Canada, divorces in this country are increasing among people in older age groups. Moreover, almost one-third of the divorces in Canada are now the result of a joint application by both spouses, a 2022 report from the agency states. “The proportion of couples who file jointly has grown steadily from 4% in 1987 to 31% in 2020.”

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Psychologist Rebecca Cobb, who teaches at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said why and how relationships end is often “complicated and likely not a simple answer.”

But having space in a marriage can probably renew excitement, depending on what people do with their time apart, according to Cobb.

“If they explore new things, develop new friendships and reinvigorate existing relationships with others then… when partners spend time together, they have novel exciting experiences and new aspects of themselves to share with each other, which might renew their passion in the relationship,” Cobb told Global News.

What exactly is a separation marriage?

Savvy Tokyo, an online guide for international women and families in Tokyo, says on its website that separation marriage — also known as “sotsukon” in Japan — is “a cheaper, easier way to create space in a marriage.”

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“Couples can…easily return to their former lifestyle, and as old age approaches, it is reassuring to have a formal connection to someone who will help look after you when needed,” the guide states.

The key aspect of this arrangement is that it provides people flexibility.

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“Some couples continue to live in the same house but do their own cooking and cleaning like housemates. Others choose to live in separate homes but meet regularly for dates, to chat, or to help each other with work or chores,” the guide states.

The guide adds: “While some of us will continue to have fulfilling marriages throughout our lives, most of us know that the expectations we have maintained will at some point no longer serve our best interests. You can either “graduate” to a new phase together, or end the relationship.”

The separation marriage trend has yet to catch on in Canada, but some think it’s possible for people to have successful marriages that fall outside the norm of monogamous relationships and may include more distance or personal space, which is healthy.

'Open to ideas'

According to Joanna Seidel, therapist and clinical director for the Toronto Family Therapy, people need to be “open to ideas of how to make a marriage work”.

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“We should be open to people being together and having their own ways of defining their relationships, choosing to live together or not live together,” Seidel told Global News.

In her clinical practice, Seidel said she has seen divorced couples with children, finding partners again but instead of living as blended families, they choose to live and raise their families separately.

“I often see parents who raised their own family in their own house independently but (also) have long-term relationships of five or 10 years and have a lot of closeness. They’re just not ready to blend and merge their separate families,” said Seidel.

“It’s really important to just carve out the time and spend quality time together to make sure that you’re maintaining your relationship,” said Seidel.

Shift in ideas, ideals

Many couples in urban Canada are already in separate living arrangements due to circumstances, according to Seidel.

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She said she has worked with couples who have to live apart because they work in different cities or have jobs that require them to be out of town during most of the week — they only come together to spend weekends.

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As someone who studies consensual non-monogamy where people have more than one partner, Cobb said she has noticed partners in such relationships don’t always live together. It is even possible that some people thrive because of the distance, added.

“People do differ in the degree to which they value autonomy and independence. And so some people may prefer this kind of relationship and do well with it.”

The separation marriage or weekend marriage in Japan also suggests that it is possible for people to have successful relationships outside of the norm, said Cobb.

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“Sometimes two of the people in (a) relationship live together, but often other partners live in other towns or they live across the country,” she said.

“I think what it suggests is that our ideas and our ideals about what relationships are and should be might be shifting and becoming somewhat more flexible. And people are exploring other ways to have relationships that can work for them,” she said.

What are the concerns?

Such arrangements come with their own set of concerns, both Cobb and Seidel find.

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“When you have people who are living separately, there’s always a worry…There’s a fear that they’re missing out on their partner’s life…So if your partner is experiencing all kinds of amazing personal growth and you aren’t, or vice versa, then that can actually be potentially threatening,” explained Cobb.

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The arrangements can also become very expensive for some and may not be feasible in the long run, said Seidel. Moreover, too much distance in a relationship will lead partners to avoid each other, she said, so finding a balance between the two is important.

She added: “Secure and healthy relationships are a balance between closeness and autonomy.”

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